MRU journalism alumni and students discuss experiences as media members in the heart of a city disaster
As floodwaters ravaged southern Alberta this summer, alumni and journalists from Mount Royal University were at the centre of it all. Whether it was the reports on TV, the pictures in the newspapers or the stories online, these media members worked around the clock to get the news to you.
This Tuesday, the Faculty of Communications and the journalism department hosted a panel at MRU that included many of the students from past and present who were among the most involved with the devastating floods. These are their stories:
Tamara Elliot, online reporter, Global Calgary
Tamara Elliot graduated from the journalism program at Mount Royal in 2006. After graduation, Elliot began working as both an editor and a producer at Global Calgary. She is currently an online reporter, responsible for Internet content, as well as social media. During the flood, Elliot wrote all of the site's web stories while sending constant updates through social media. All the while, she was evacuated from her home.
"We are a profession where we have to put the job before ourselves, so it's one of those things you can never really be prepared for," Elliot said. "You just come into journalism being excited for stories like that. You want to be in the thick of it. You want to know what's going on and you want to see what's happening."
Elliot noticed something was happening on June 20 within an hour of her getting to work at noon. Talk was beginning about possible evacuations, and with her home just four blocks away from the river, she called her husband to warn him that he might need to start packing and leave their home with their dogs. Within two hours, the police were walking through her neighbourhood with megaphones telling people they needed to evacuate.
"Journalism is one of those interesting professions where instead of running away from stuff you run towards it," Elliot said. "This was kind of our hurricane."
She worked approximately 14 hours that day keeping the constant stream of information updated online. This included live streams of press conferences, retweeting Mayor Naheed Nenshi's updates and an interactive shelter map to help the people who were getting evacuated by the hour to find a safe place.
"I think our social media work really paid off," Elliot said. "The City (of Calgary) and the police were the top two retweeters in the city and then Global News was number three, so we were pretty impressed with that, considering there was only two of us working there."
Zoey Duncan, newsroom freelance web producer, Calgary Herald
Zoey Duncan graduated in 2011 from MRU where she worked as the Reflector's publishing and news editor before moving on to her first job as a news curator for OpenFile Calgary.
Duncan provided support for the flood entirely from inside the Calgary Herald newsroom as their freelance web producer. She produced content for the Herald's online entities by populating it with breaking news, keeping apps up to date and updating social media accurately and efficiently.
"It was weird to be in the newsroom all the time and see all of those photos come in," Duncan said. "It was a strange disconnection because this was all happening to our neighbours and friends and we were really quite separate up on our hill.
It really was sort of a dream – to look back at some of the tweets we were tweeting at the time. It was just a different lifetime away."
She was called into the Herald on one of her days off to help for a few hours during the calm before the storm.
"There's a balancing act of being serious enough when reporting information, but also trying not to scare people." Duncan said. "Yes it's a disaster, a crisis and an emergency situation, but 10 per cent of the city were the only ones directly affected."
Duncan was fortunate that she didn't lose her home, which made things like going to work at 5:30 a.m. not seem so bad. Still, she felt it hard to disconnect from everything that was going on each time she returned home.
Duncan noted that it was interesting to see a shift in how communal it felt in the newsroom during the crisis.
"Suddenly we're all working on the same stories," she said. "We're all working towards a common goal other than just filling the paper."
Melissa Renwick, contract photographer, Reuters
Melissa Renwick's photos of the floods were seen around the world. As a contract photographer for Reuters, her photos made the editor's choice gallery and were published in Maclean's magazine, The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, Swerve magazine, the Calgary Sun's flood issue and many other publications around the world.
Having graduated from MRU in 2012, Renwick became a photo assistant for Todd Korol, a distinguished photographer in Calgary. Renwick continues to work with Korol on various commercial and journalistic projects as a freelance photographer.
Like many, Renwick's emotions during the flood varied on a large scale over the series of events that occurred that week.
She ventured out on Friday morning with her camera in hand after a sleepless night of monitoring the City of Calgary website. Because she was living in the beltline, and all of the areas around her were being evacuated, she was waiting for the notification that her community was being evacuated. Thankfully, it never came.
The wide range of exposure her photos received was sheer luck, as Korol called her that morning to tell her she was working for Reuters that day.
She captured the emotions of those affected by the flood. From the lightheartedness of playing hooky from work, to the devastation of the aftermath, to those realizing they had lost their homes.
Renwick said: "I found that my experience changed drastically over the first couple of days. On the third day a lot of the communities were allowed to get back into their homes – the water was gone and the realization and the aftermath started to set in, so my approach changed a lot.
It was a really big learning experience for me. I felt almost ashamed that I had these two able hands and two able legs and I was just taking photos of their misery, when I could've been helping to take the insulation out of their place.
But I just had to remind myself that there wouldn't have been that many volunteers had we not been able to show what was going on, and to tell the stories of the people that were going through all of this tragedy."
Kim Jackson, communications and customer relations specialist, Enmax Corp.
Kim Jackson, her husband and their three children were evacuated from their home at 1:30 a.m. during the early hours of June 21. As if her night hadn't been hectic enough, she received a call telling her that she would be working with the Calgary Emergency Management Agency to help with communications for Enmax Corp. during the flood.
Jackson was asked to provide numbers on power outages as well as damage to electrical subsystems. Calgary Emergency Management Agency was in charge of informing the public, and it was up to them to respond to customers in a timely fashion when it came to power issues.
"I knew we had 30,000 people without power," Jackson said. "So we had to talk to these people somehow."
For some of her time spent at the agency, Jackson worked off of an iPad in a closet.
"We thought we had a crisis plan in place," Jackson said. "But then a crisis happens and you realize all of the planning you can do goes out the window and you make the best of the situation."
Kim Wright, storyteller and communications coordinator, Propellus
Kim Wright had been an intern with Volunteer Calgary from January to May 2013, and accepted a position as a full-fledged employee in June. As the storyteller and communications coordinator for the organization, it was her task to run social media channels and blogs that the public sees everyday.
On the morning of June 20, Wright was supposed to help Volunteer Calgary launch a new brand called Propellus. For months she had been preparing for the big day, but instead of getting hard at work to launch the new brand, she was sent home because of an unexpected state of emergency.
"I get a call the next morning saying our office downtown is flooded," Wright said.
With the office flooded, Wright was forced to make some quick communications decisions about which social media channels and blogs to use, while keeping the public engaged and safe. The organization received over 174,000 shares on Facebook, and made a blog post for donation and item wish lists so people would know what flood victims would need.
"No one expected the response from the Calgary community," she said. "People wanted to run out and volunteer anywhere they could."
Brad Linn, communications supervisor, City of Calgary
Brad Linn worked 16-hour days during the flood to keep Calgarians informed about the flood using social media. Linn is on the city's crisis communications team and when the flood hit, it was up to him and his team to get messages out to the public.
He worked for two weeks non-stop, and when he finally got a break during those few weeks, he had a hard time shutting down.
"All I was doing was communicating about the flood for almost 60 to 70 hours," Linn said. "You are so involved that it takes so long to step back. You have to force yourself to sleep and let go."
Linn said it took him until the middle of September to recover from working so much during the flood. He said the flood still isn't over and a lot of work is still being done to fix damages caused by the disaster.
Kassidy Christensen, intern reporter, High River Times
In her first few weeks on the job, Kassidy Christensen went from covering a senior's tea to being on the front lines of the biggest news story in the country.
This summer, Christensen worked as an intern for the High River Times, the town's local newspaper.
"It was definitely a different experience," Christensen said. "It was kind of like a dream."
The flood hit the town quickly, and before long, the newspaper's office was under water. Without a place to work, the third-year journalism student was left wondering how she would be able to do her job.
The newspaper's staff relocated to Nanton, working from a makeshift office in the newspaper publisher's kitchen and continued to report in the wake of the flood. Over the weeks that followed, Christensen worked tirelessly writing and reporting to keep the people in town informed.
"It made me realize how important this field is and why everybody is in it," Christensen said. "If we weren't here, the word wouldn't have gotten out."
Kevin Rushworth, editor, High River Times
Kevin Rushworth didn't know about the flood until his phone rang while he was eating breakfast. It was his mother, who had called to warn him about the state of emergency in High River, where Rushworth worked as an editor for the High River Times.
He grabbed his keys, and headed into the flood zone to assess the situation himself. Rushworth decided to sneak past the RCMP, who blocked off the roads, to get pictures for the newspaper. But, shortly after finding his way into the evacuation zone, he realized he was in serious danger.
"I went from being worried about getting my pictures to being completely terrified," Rushworth said.
As the waters continued to rise, he found himself trapped on an island. With limited cell phone reception in the town, his calls for help weren't getting through.
Rushworth finally got through to the RCMP, who eventually rescued him using a front-end loader tractor.
In the wake of the devastation, Rushworth lost his home, his car and his office. Instead of counting his losses, he got right back to work and continued publishing for the newspaper.
"The only thing I had left was my job," Rushworth said. "We were the media that had to get the news out."
- By LANDON WESLEY, MAX SHILLETO and TERA SWANSON